Cowichan Valley water steward dies in plane crash

Two men had built small home-built amphibious airplane together.

A Cowichan Valley man known as a tireless environmental steward is one of two men who died Saturday, July 26 when their small aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff just north of Ladysmith.

The fatal mishap happened at about 7 p.m. as the small home-built amphibious plane was taking off from Nanaimo Airport.

Michael Cyril Weir, 73, from Salt Spring Island, and Gerald Paul Thom, 50, from Youbou, died in the crash.

“The aircraft stalled on takeoff and crashed upside down on the fairway,” said Ron Gueullette, chief of Cranberry Volunteer Fire Department.

Cranberry firefighters removed the victims from crash scene before the wreckage was transported to a secure shelter at Nanaimo Airport later that night for inspection.

Ladysmith RCMP were also called to the scene at approximately 7 p.m. Saturday evening. RCMP have been assisting the Transportation Safety Board and the BC Coroners Service with their investigations.

Bill Yearwood, Transportation Safety Board investigator, was told by witnesses the craft lifted off, then appeared to suddenly lose altitude before making a sharp left turn.

“It then made a very steep descent, nose-down, and hit the ground,” Yearwood said.

The plane crashed near the 14th hole of Cottonwood Golf Course, close to the airport and golf course property line.

Trent Kaese, golf course owner, said there were golfers on the 13th and 15th holes, but fortunately no one playing near where the craft impacted.

Thom was known for his tireless work along the Cowichan River and had a passion for protecting the local watershed.

He was president of the Cowichan Lake River Stewardship Society and played an instrumental role in the Lake Studies program at Lake Cowichan School.

Earlier this year, he was named Citizen of the Year for 2013 by the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce at the annual Nichole Stock Awards.

Biologist Bob Crandall from the Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society said he was “stunned” by the news.

“Gerald Thom and I have many combined efforts/projects on the go at this time,” he said in an e-mail. “I am trying to find ways to patch together supervision of ongoing projects without Gerald. We, together on Monday in a meeting to fight for local control of our water, made a lot of progress with the province. On Friday morning just before, we were with Gerald exchanging tools. His work crew were planting Lake Cowichan First Nations waterfront with native plants while removing blackberry and broom. We always had differences of opinion yet always worked together for the greater good of the environment. We had many successes despite our differences. We always championed joined efforts.

“He will be missed. Environmental stewardship of our lake and river have lost a strong soldier.”

Like Crandall, Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest was equally shocked and saddened by the loss of Thom.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Forrest. “Gerald was the ultimate champion of water and sustainability in our community. Water and flying were his two passions. He was a great individual and will be a tough guy to replace.”

Parker Jefferson from One Cowichan described Thom as “a tremendous advocate for lake and river stewardship concerns.”

“It’s a tragic loss to our community,” he said. “He was the leader behind the river stewardship society. We are going to miss his tremendous enthusiasm and hard work, it’s big shoes to fill. We will obviously present our condolences to his family. He died pursuing something he loved.

“We have to continue our efforts believing that he is watching over us. Everyone is going to have to chip in that little bit more.”

Yearwood said the Avid Amphibian aircraft was owned by the two men on board and that they had built the craft together on Salt Spring Island. It had been based at Nanaimo Airport since December.

“The aircraft is a two-seater flying boat and it’s powered by an air-cooled, Volkswagen four-cylinder engine that has been modified for aviation use,” Yearwood said.

Yearwood said he found no obvious cause for the crash during his initial inspection Sunday, July 27, but by the condition of the propeller, it appeared the aircraft was not under full power when it struck the ground.

Yearwood said he is also interested in seeing any video footage from anyone who might have been filming at the airport.

Nanaimo Airport staff is also reviewing surveillance camera footage.